The intolerant other: representations of the racist in The Sun newspaper
Alec Charles, University of Chester
The term ‘racist’ is increasingly being used by certain sections of the popular press not only to brand particular perspectives as morally otherly or untouchable but also to promote the argument that by comparison those publications’ own anti-immigration, hyper-nationalist or xenophobic positions are not in themselves racist. These publications have deployed the ‘racist’ label against any groups whose positions they wish to dismiss and exclude: from ultra-right-wing extremists to leftist liberals, from the politically correct to the socio-economically dispossessed. This strategy may be seen as bearing some of the structural attributes of racism itself. Yet this othering of one’s ideological opponents is ironically a rhetorical strategy which is also demonstrated by those leftist-liberals most opposed to the tabloid positions on these issues. This article explores the uses of the term ‘racist’ in The Sun newspaper (the UK’s top-selling daily news title) during 2013 in an attempt to illuminate these contradictions in ways which may help both journalists and journalism educators to come to a more effective understanding of this area of ongoing controversy. This paper is not in itself about whether or not The Sun is racist: it is about how that publication addresses the subject of racism itself, and about how journalism education might develop a more constructive and inclusive engagement with the issue than the rhetorical strategy that currently dominates the discourse.
There is a danger that arguments against discriminatory perspectives and practices may themselves assume the strategies of exclusion and anathematization characterized by such perspectives and practices. This is a problem for liberal academia as it is for the populist press. The most effective way to avoid this discursive slippage is to maintain a continuing consciousness and scrutiny of the complexities and ambiguities which this slippage offers to eschew. When liberal academia brands a certain publication racist, it may be useful to explore the discriminatory fashion in which that publication itself deploys that term and its simultaneous denunciations of such branding – lest liberal academia itself might fall prey to similar hypocrisies.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites seven examples of usage to accompany its definition of the noun racist. Its earliest citation comes from The Manchester Guardian (22 September 1926): a reference to German racists. Another of its examples refers similarly to “classic German racists.” Its definition of the adjective racist also gives two (out of five) examples which use the term to describe Germans. Even in this most authoritative publication the use of the word racist is not without its own xenophobic implications. Given the problematic nature of this word, this paper will explore its uses in a publication which has not only often been depicted as racist itself, but which also exhibits a similarly problematic relationship with that term – to call into question the ways in which both that publication and a progressive journalism education might use that term.
Anderson (1991, pp. 35-36) has witnessed through the development of the news industry the evolution of the notion of nationhood itself. It is, as Wodak et al. (2009, p. 22) have suggested, through such “narratives of national culture” that nationhood is constructed. Wodak (1989, p. xiv) has argued for the need to make discursive mechanisms of societal construction and discrimination “explicit and transparent.” Toolan (1988, p. 236) has also emphasized the need to unpick the ways in which discourses function “so as to see what a particular narrative version of events is tacitly committed to.” This stance aligns closely with liberal ideals of both journalism and education as arenas for the interrogation of presumption and power. It seems incumbent upon journalism education on occasion to remind journalism of such ideals; just as it is sometimes the duty of journalism to challenge the failings of education. This paper attempts not only to question a particular set of assumptions relating to the issue of racism, but more broadly to remind journalism educators of the need to expose and question assumptions implicit in popular, journalistic and academic discourses (such knee-jerk responses as cthose which invalidate and ostracize the ideologically alien) – and to observe that such assumptions are the province not only of the reactionary Right but also, crucially, of the liberal Left.
Literature review: racism in the news
Bennett (2009, p. 199) recounts how in 1976 U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz informed reporters that “what coloreds want” was “a tight pussy […] loose shoes and […] a warm place to shit” and how “not one major news outlet” published the story. Bennett (2009, p. 200) notes that today such remarks would be spread across the internet in a matter of minutes. Might the popular press’s increasing willingness to expose and anathematize racists then represent a delayed response to a culture of citizen scrutineers who are already doing this? If so, the press may be missing key opportunities to address issues of disparity by raising awareness of its own conditions of practice.
Campbell et al. (2012, p. 6) have noted the persistence of discriminatory perspectives in newsmaking. LeDuff (2012, p. 61) has proposed that the media should better address those issues which underpin the “unfair treatment of minorities.” Jenkins and Padgett (2012, p. 247) argue that “the demands of diversity” suggest a need to overhaul “traditional journalistic values”. In order to ensure the contemporary relevance of its values, the news industry must understand their contexts and impacts. Entman and Rojecki (2000, pp. 77, 93) suggest that “the news does not reflect “any conscious effort by journalists to cultivate their audiences’ accurate understanding of racial matters” but instead follows “cultural patterns of which journalists are only imperfectly aware” and thus argue that changing the ways in which journalists represent race is “no easy task” insofar as “thinking stereotypically” has become their “normal way of thinking.”
Ross (1996, p. xx) observes that the mainstream media’s “underlying values and norms are transmitted as an unselfconscious truth.” It is therefore the role of journalism education to bring these assumptions and values into the light of conscious scrutiny. There may however be some professional resistance to such challenges to the industry’s normative perspectives and practices. Downing and Husband (2005, p. 152) observe that “the shared values […] of media professionals’ community of practice can serve to isolate them from accountability.” This isolation may lead to a situation envisaged by (Downing and Husband 2005, p. 183) in which – although “critiques of media performance in relation to the representation of ethnic diversity and the reporting of racism are known to virtually all media professionals” – this academic challenge is commonly disregarded as “a low-level professional tinnitus generated by outsiders who can be discounted.” Philo and Berry (2006, p. 209) argue that there remains resistance to opportunities for journalism to “radically transform” audience perspectives, and thus the challenge “is to develop innovative forms of news in which this can be done.” Such forms should – as Bailey and Harindranath (2005, p. 284) emphasize – specifically address the need for “journalism as a practice to transcend the rhetoric of nationalism.”
Might journalism transcend such rhetoric through processes of education and reflection informed by empirically grounded research? In the early 1990s Dickson (1993, p. 28) argued that “journalism education itself fosters the attitudes that result in media bias and stereotyping of minorities.” This paper suggests that a clearer understanding of the representation of racism in the popular press may itself promote more effective and educational practices in relation to that issue.
Background: a brief history of The Sun
Following its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch in 1969 The Sun grew in both popularity and populism. Conboy (2010, pp. 135, 128) observes that this populist discourse is framed “by a set of narratives which are nationalistically and even chauvinistically based” and emphasizes “the ability of the Sun to transform the language of popular appeal […] to a new articulation of the sentiments and policies of the right.” “No passive reporter of politics” (McNair 2000, p. 20), The Sun has adopted an active role in the development of such an agenda.
A Sun report of 4 May 1976 – denouncing the “scandal of £600-a-week immigrants” – led to the formation of the Campaign against Racism in the Media (Sheridan 1982, pp. 1-2). Within a few years, the election of Margaret Thatcher and a consequent resurgence in right-wing sentiment would entrench The Sun’s perspectives on ethnicity and immigration. During the 1980s, in the wake of Thatcher’s reclamation of the Falkland Islands, The Sun grew more explicit in its right-wing sympathies. As Sheridan (1982, p. 1) has noted, “the Falklands war brought to the fore a putrid concoction of jingoism and racism” in the tabloid press.
Such attitudes are not exclusive to The Sun. Yet though Richardson (2004, p. xx) has exposed the “frequency of the negative ‘Muslim Other’ in broadsheet reporting” Poole observes that such discriminatory perspectives are more explicitly articulated in the tabloid press. Her analysis reveals that in The Sun “the Other was at all times clearly delineated as ‘foreign’ and subject to ridicule” (Poole 2009, p. 249). Ferguson (1998, p. 130) has observed The Sun became notorious during the 1980s for such slurs. Van Dijk (2008, pp. 139-140) demonstrates how a series of Sun editorials from 1985 – one commending British “tolerance” (14 August), another condemning “black racism” (24 October), another representing anti-racists as “the true racists” (30 November) – depict those opposed to racism themselves as “the ones who are intolerant.” Solomos (2003, p. 202) recalls that The Sun’s coverage of the 1987 election announced that BME candidates were “holders of loony Left ideas.” Van Dijk (2000, p. 48) critiques a Sun report from 2 February 1989 – “Britain invaded by an army of illegals” – to show how the “systematic negative portrayal of the Others […] contributed to […] the enactment and reproduction of racism.” O’Malley and Soley (2000, p. 150) give an account of a Sun attack against a “human tide” of immigration from 4 April 1992 which “reprised the racist themes for which the Sun was well known” – a story they describe as “inaccurate and inflammatory, designed to stimulate racially motivated sentiment.” Conboy (2002, p. 160) shows how an anti-immigration campaign launched by The Sun on 9 March 2000 – under the banner “Britain has had enough” – exploited “populist sentiments”. Matthews and Brown’s account of The Sun’s 2003 campaign against immigration observes references to asylum seekers as “either economic migrants or dangerous enemies within the UK” (2012, p. 813).
As a consequence of a particularly notorious report – described by Greenslade (2005, p. 25) as “a fabrication in which asylum seekers were both scapegoated and stereotyped as barbarians” – on 6 December 2003 The Sun was obliged to publish the following clarification: “While numerous members of the public alleged that the swans were being killed and eaten by people they believed to be Eastern European, nobody has been arrested in relation to these offences and we accept that it is not therefore possible to conclude yet whether or not the suspects were indeed asylum-seekers.” Richardson (2007, pp. 65-66) identifies a similar example of a Sun editorial from 2 March 2005 which “reconfigures a traffic accident into an immigration story” to demonstrate the persistence of such “racist hyperbole”.
For liberal academia to suggest that this is simply a matter of unrepentant racism would be to brand such discourse as otherly or untouchable in a way which echoes that intolerance. There are ambiguities, complexities and contradictions in The Sun’s perspectives on such issues. On 30 January 2007, in response to the Celebrity Big Brother victory of a Bollywood performer who had been subjected to racist taunts from other contestants, The Sun’s front page showed children holding up placards bearing self-targeted discriminatory labels. The paper argued that though these children had “encountered racism in this country […] they are also all British.” Racism, it said, had re-emerged “like a monster from the deep.” It would be churlish to disregard the sincerity of this sentiment; and Temple (2010) has argued that the positive impact of such expressions can be significant. The newspaper noted that the Big Brother triumph of the Indian actress demonstrated that “most Brits accept other cultures and are tolerant of them.” If, however, as Mutman (2013: 2395) has suggested, an “everyday” racism is always present, a progressive response to the ubiquity of subliminal prejudice would be to drag it into the light of conscious scrutiny rather than to deny (and therefore to sustain) it with such comforting moral complacency. On 30 January 2007 Guardian blogger Steve Busfield suggested that The Sun’s anti-racist stance was mere cant. The following day The Guardian’s Jon Henley posited that the newspaper had run this image in an attempt to spoil a rival’s exclusive interview with the Big Brother winner, and noted that this publication had recently complained of “the lowlife scum infesting our country.” On 5 February The Guardian’s John Plunkett added that “the Mirror had the exclusive interview […] so it had to come up with something.” Plunkett reminded Guardian readers that The Sun had four years earlier “provoked accusations of racism with its spoof series of Mr Men characters […] Mr Yardie, a black gun-toting Rastafarian smoking a joint, Mr Asylum, a toothless vagabond who wants everything for free, and Mr Albanian Gangster, who carries a knife and invites men to meet his friends’ sisters.”
The Sun’s leader column on 30 January 2007 had exhibited a conflicted perspective upon this controversy. It noted that terms of racial abuse may be “intended as light-hearted playground stuff” but that the Celebrity Big Brother case demonstrated “that teasing can all too easily turn into ugly racist bullying.” It nevertheless reassured its readers that the fact that the viewing public had voted for the victim of the abuse proved that “we are a nation that hates racism.” Racism was monstrous and otherly; racists were alien to our society. (As Plunkett pointed out, the chief abuser had been “branded” by The Sun both a “yob” and a “chav”.) The tabloid adopted a position which disavowed itself from such discriminatory perspectives, while using similarly discriminatory terms to abuse the abuser. Having employed abusive tactics to distance itself from such abuse, the paper was then able (from this moral high ground) in the very same leader column to reiterate its own anti-immigration stance: “Tory leader David Cameron rightly blames multiculturalism and unchecked immigration for stoking the flames.”
Is this mere hypocrisy? In a similar case, on 15 July 2004 the front page of The Sun newspaper had berated the British National Party as a “vile racist party” of “Bloody Nasty People.” Four days later a reader’s letter added that the BNP was a “party of evil bigoted racists.” Roy Greenslade however argued in The Guardian that day that this was the same newspaper which also published “material, day after day, which feeds the prejudices of people who are recruited by, and increasingly vote for, the BNP.”
The Sun here displayed a bigotry against bigots not unknown amongst liberal academia – against those classes of people seen to propagate such bigotry. Those classes may include the socially excluded and the economically dispossessed (the yobs and the chavs), and foreigners and immigrants themselves, as well as those who espouse political positions radically different from those of the hegemony. It is all too easy (for the liberal academic as for the tabloid reporter) to dismiss such positions rather than confronting and interrogating them. As Frost (2011, p. 178) observes, “it is bigotry we should be concerned about and not the presentation of views that are opposed to our own.”
In an interview conducted for this paper in February 2014, Roy Greenslade has argued that “there has been a change” in recent years in the The Sun’s perspectives on race: it “is not as full-heartedly or overtly racist as it was ten years ago.” Greenslade has added that The Sun is “noticeably conflicted over two issues. The first is migration: it’s well known that Rupert Murdoch favours migration. The Sun has changed tack several times on that: the xenophobia of its old message has been toned down. The second is the UK Independence Party: The Sun clearly espouses many of the values that underpin UKIP – it as antiEurope and against the things that Europe provides – such as Schengen. You can see the difference between the editorial position in the leaders and that of, say, Trevor Kavanagh [Sun columnist, and the paper’s former political editor]. There’s a tension at the heart of the editorial line.” This tension is exemplified in the divergence between the positions taken on 29 April 2013 by The Sun’s leader column and “the urbane and sensible Trevor Kavanagh” (Greenslade 2004, p. 421). While Kavanagh suggested that UKIP was “an irresponsible party of protest with nothing serious to say” the paper’s leader simultaneously praised UKIP leader “Nigel Farage’s common sense” and admitted that a “worrying number” of the party’s candidates were “extremist oddballs.”
While its success at May 2014’s European elections softened The Sun’s position on UKIP, the paper remains uncompromising in its hostility to the BNP. During 2013 the BNP was mentioned 32 times in The Sun. Only two stories focussed directly on the party and both comprised ad hominem criticisms of that “despicable bigot” BNP leader Nick Griffin for his “disgusting” conduct on Twitter. In a year in which the BNP performed better at one by-election than the lesser partner in the extant coalition government, The Sun did not directly dispute the ideas advanced by that party – but stigmatized and derided it. Its allusions to the BNP during 2013 included a recollection that Russell Brand had called Griffin a “nitwit”; a suggestion by Frankie Boyle that the BNP might outsource their operations to India; a reminder to the “fascist BNP” that “their side lost” the Second World War (while another piece described its HQ as a “Nazi bunker”); and an observation that 12 times more people had taken part in a protest against killing badgers than had joined a BNP march. Four stories concerning the May 2013 murder of Drummer Lee Rigby alluded to the BNP’s attempts to “exploit” that tragedy. A number of other stories compared or associated other far-right groups with the BNP: the English Defence League (twice), the Scottish Defence League (twice), the New British Union (three times), the National Front (twice),
Ulster loyalist extremists, a Glaswegian “organisation not worthy of being named” and Greece’s Golden Dawn. In six stories UKIP was associated with the BNP: although “the party once derided as the BNP in Blazers” (2 March 2013) had now “kicked out unsavoury BNP sympathisers and other racists” (29 April) it still appeared to resemble the BNP “dressed in Alan Partridge-style sports casuals” (9 August) – as its former leader depicted Nigel Farage as “the only party leader ever photographed with leading members of the BNP” (23 September) – a party whose members “are repeatedly exposed as ex-BNP” (13 October).
The BNP represented a rhetorical weapon against more legitimate parties – whether it be that UKIP “dinosaur” Godfrey Bloom (9 August) or those Labour “dinosaurs” David Blunkett and Jack Straw (14 November), or the assorted “clowns” of UKIP or the Liberal Democrats (7 May). Former Labour Home Secretaries Blunkett and Straw were blamed for liberal European immigration policies giving the BNP a foothold in British politics (14 and 17 November). On 24 November Gordon Brown’s liberal Euro-immigration policies were blamed for giving ammunition to the BNP, although on 19 May Brown was blamed for promoting an illiberal anti-immigration agenda adopted by the BNP. On 4 May 2013 the paper observed that the Liberal Democrats were “reeling from a by-election which ranked them less popular than the racist fanatics of the BNP.” Three days later one reader’s letter added that “it was a joy to see Nick Clegg’s Lib Dem clowns got half the votes of the BNP.”
There remain essential contradictions in the positions on racism taken by The Sun. Harcup (2007, pp. 60-61) commends The Sun’s 2007 coverage of the killing of Anthony Walker for its attempt to “remind readers of the murderous results of racism.” Like Greenslade, Halliday (2006, p. 30) observes that “the changing coverage by the Sun of black […] issues over the past three decades” shows “how things do get better.”
The targets of The Sun’s crusades against immigration do not necessarily share this optimism. Philo et al. (2013, p. 150) report views of refugees who cite The Sun’s uses of negative language to depict asylum seekers – through modes of representation which, as Leudar et al. (2008, p. 215) suggest, “deny the refugee aspects of common humanity.” It is perhaps therefore premature to believe we are witnessing the extinction of what Bates (2011, p. 21) has called the “inflammatory rhetoric” of The Sun’s coverage of immigration. It is nevertheless crucial that we maintain a constructive engagement with the tabloid’s perspectives rather than merely deny their rationality or validity.
The research informing this study was initiated through a quantitative content analysis of every article and letter in The Sun newspaper which used the term racist during 2013. This analysis differentiated between the uses of the term as an adjective and a noun, and categorized the different contexts of these uses, with particular reference to the types of nouns the adjectival form qualified. It followed the model of such quantitative analyses as those performed by Elizabeth Poole’s Reporting Islam. This study has similarly selected for its analysis a 100 per cent sample of articles from the period and periodical under scrutiny: in order, as Poole (2006, p. 89; 2009, p. 25) explains, “to ensure that the sample was representative.” Given this study’s focus of enquiry (one word in one newspaper in one year) this appears to be a case in which, in the words of Gunter (2002, p. 221), “the universe may be small enough to sample in its entirety.”
An initial quantitative approach has been chosen in order to provide an evidential basis upon which more symptomatic modes of interpretation can be developed: a foundation which is intended to be “unobstrusive” (Berger 2011, p. 213) and “systematic and objective” (Davies and Mosdell 2006, p. 98). This method offers a foundation designed to be as objective as possible (and also transparent about its capacity for subjectivity): inasmuch as “a truly ‘objective’, value-free perspective” is not possible, not even in the most reified modes of quantitative analysis (Deacon et al. 2010, p. 132). That objectivity may be impossible does not mean that it should be discarded as an irrelevant ideal (Calcutt and Hammond 2014). Objectivity offers a valid direction of travel even if it remains an ultimately unobtainable object.
The parameters of investigation selected were The Sun newspaper and the year 2013. This publication was chosen because it is Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper; the year was chosen because it was the most recent full calendar year available for analysis at the time of the study. An entire calendar year was chosen in order to avoid the possibility of any seasonal variations (for example, related to sports coverage). The sample selected for this unit of analysis comprised the totality of content in The Sun newspaper in that year, in order to avoid subjective selectivity. As that newspaper has so often been dubbed racist over the past several decades, it was decided to examine that publication’s own uses of the term racist in the ideationally fertile variety of its grammatical functions and semantic contexts, both to explore that newspaper’s ambiguous and problematic perspectives on racism and thereby to reflect upon the similarly ambiguous and problematic nature of such branding at the hands of liberal academia.
Research was conducted via the Lexis Nexis newspaper archive. The portal listed an initial total of 1002 items (news, editorial or opinion articles or readers’ letters) in The Sun during 2013 which included the word racist. These items were filtered to remove duplicates: this left 799 instances of the word. These were divided into nouns and adjectives; the latter were then sub-coded as adjectives qualifying animate nouns (people, groups or animals) and adjectives qualifying inanimate (concrete and abstract) nouns (things, ideas and expressions). A catalogue was created of all the nouns for which the adjectival form of this term was used as a qualifier. This paper details every such noun which appeared on more than one occasion.
The results of this research are detailed in the following section of this paper. This data demonstrates the ways in which The Sun newspaper employs the term racist as an overwhelmingly negative designation, one which is generally deployed to denigrate those branded therewith. The subsequent discussion section explores The Sun’s own problematization of this strategy in its own reflections upon such branding processes. In this section, this paper therefore moves towards a more interpretative mode of symptomatic textual analysis.
Various researchers have commended strategies which promote symptomatic readings of media discourses elaborated upon a foundation of quantitative analysis to set the terms and themes for such speculative engagements: to determine the conditions of which particular examples are posited as specific symptoms. Downing and Husband (2005, p. 27) propose that one is not obliged to choose between content analysis and symptomatic textual readings but that one might usefully instead attempt “appropriate combinations of both approaches.” Priest (2010, p. 92) proposes that quantitative analysis is a “limited tool” most useful when combined with “other forms of research.” Gunter (2000, p. 92) also supposes that “although it may be important to establish, through quantitative techniques, whether certain entities outnumber others” the interpretation of the meanings of those entities may require other modes of analysis. Bertrand and Hughes (2005, p. 216) commend “a combination of data gathering and analysis” which might afford space for “interpretation through a framework of understanding” based upon, for example, the possibilities of symptomatic readings of the text as a manifestation of discourse pregnant with ideology. Thus they argue, for example, that “those concerned to identify the workings of ideology might seek evidence of the representation of nation/race […] using content analysis […] or discourse analysis” – or, one might add, a combination of both.
Arguing for “discourse analysis of content” Tuchmann (1991, p. 88-89) shows how such analysis may expose the ways in which “news is ideological” – and that such analysis, by exposing these ideological structures, affords the possibility that “journalists need not passively accept these frames.” Gray (2013, pp. 254-256) suggests that academic critiques of media representations of race might usefully develop a set of strategies designed to measure the “affective and emotional intensities that sustain practices of inequality, social advantage, and disadvantage” and thereby to rethink “the work of representation.” This study then is focused primarily upon on way in which such nuances of journalistic discourse establish their ideological frames.
Findings: the ‘R’ word
On 30 September 2013 Naomi Campbell told The Sun of those fashion houses which shun BME models: “we’re not calling them racists, it’s a racist act that they’re committing.” Campbell’s distinction between criticizing actions as racist and stigmatizing individuals with that label is illuminating; it exposes the conflicted nature of much coverage of the issue.
One common characteristic of discriminatory discourse is the shift in the usage of a qualifier to become an identifier: when an adjective becomes a noun, when an attribute becomes a name. To refer to a black person as a black, or a gay person as a gay, is to dismiss the other factors that inform their status as an individual – it is to see them as a monolithic object defined by the lens of the speaker’s prejudice, part of an objectified, dehumanized, homogeneous mass. This study examines the uses of the word racist as an adjective and a noun, and further distinguishes between its adjectival application to objects, statements or actions and its deployment as a tool to anathematize individuals or groups (i.e. the difference between ‘that statement/opinion/action is racist’ and ‘he is racist / a racist’). During 2013 The Sun used the term racist on 790 occasions and the term anti-racist on nine further occasions. The former term appeared: 144 times as a noun applied to individuals or groups, as in “what a racist she is” (3 July) and “kick out racists” (30 July); 190 times as an adjective applied to individuals or groups, as in “racist thugs” (31 July) and “my family are racist” (5 January); and twice as an adjective applied to a dog – both in the same story: a woman “claimed that a dog that bit her daughter is racist” (1 March 2013). The remaining 454 uses of the term racist functioned adjectivally in relation to objects, actions, modes of discourse or perspectives.
The object most commonly qualified by the adjective racist was the word abuse (89 occasions). There were 13 racist slurs, 11 racist rants, six insults and six taunts, five jibes, four outbursts, two tirades and two examples of bile. The term was also applied to murder on 12 occasions, to 28 attacks and one assault, to killing, crime and threat each twice, and four times to bullying. It seems significant that more than 40 per cent of the occasions on which the term racist qualified an object-noun included emotive or morally loaded terms (such as abuse, slur, rant, taunt, bullying, attack or murder). More emotionally or morally neutral nouns qualified by the term included comment (30 instances), incident (19), remark (18), behaviour (13), language (11), act (6) and nature (4). These more neutral terms were often applied to sports-related instances. There were also a total of 30 examples of racist chanting (all related to football fans), 15 cases of racist tweets and five racist jokes. Racist posters, adverts, comedies, conduct, songs, salutes, words and names each appeared on three occasions. Racist graffiti, tones, overtones, ways, gestures, messages, references and terms each featured twice. The Guardian newspaper was described as racist three times (in the same article) and Star Wars Lego toys were called racist twice (also in the one article). The remaining 69 object-nouns qualified by the term racist appeared in that context only once each.
The term racist was used in 33 stories relating to the UK Independence Party. Only twice was it used in relation to the BNP. (This may be explained by the fact that UKIP were in the news rather more than the BNP.) The term was employed five times in relation to the EDL, three times in relation to the SDL and once in relation to the NBU. During the course of the year a number of different groups trended as the most often labelled racist. April commemorated the tenth anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence by a “gang of racists” (23 April) – of “racist yobs” (20 April). A series of comments by UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom between July and September prompted a resurgence in allegations of his party’s racist attitudes. From August to November various groups of football fans from post-Communist countries (Macedonia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), as well as a Ukrainian student who had murdered a British Muslim, were most commonly dubbed racist. In December, following the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s former apartheid regime garnered the racist crown – as it had during March and June, at times when Mr Mandela’s health had also been perceived as at serious risk.
Discussion: resistance to branding
Racists were, for the most part, represented as members of a socially excluded underclass of gang members, as political extremists or as foreign footballers (including Luis Suarez and Nicolas Anelka) and foreign football fans (including Romanians, Czechs, Slovakians and Italians: “Inter’s banana-waving racists” – 15 March), foreign golfers (Sergio Garcia) and foreign governments. Racists (the paper seemed to be implying) are others: what they are not is us.
Foreign football bosses (Paolo Di Canio, as well as those eastern Europeans who defended their fans’ racist conduct) were also accused of racism – while, closer to home, the likes of Ron Atkinson, Roy Hodgson and Charles Green experienced similar censure. There was something of a comedic cliché about the latter disapprobation: on 2 January comedian Russell Howard suggested he had racially abused a doctor while under an anaesthetic which had turned him into a “racist footie boss […] a racist football manager.” The racist football manager is thereby trivialized and naturalized: the censure is conventional and tokenistic. It is a cartoon racism which is not taken seriously, which is patronized and tolerated, and which the rest of society (those who are not stereotypical football managers) are unlikely to share. The casual recognition of racist attitudes in the higher echelons of UK football (often portrayed as a soft racism of remarks and comments rather than of abuse and attacks) is perhaps an almost inevitable corollary of a situation in which “sports journalism and whiteness in the UK press have traditionally gone hand in hand” (Farrington et al. 2012, p. 150) while “the percentage of […] ethnic minorities who work in the sport media tends to be much smaller than in other types of journalism” (Claringbould et al. 2004, p. 709).
The appellation was applied to dogs, Lego toys, football managers and even The Guardian newspaper: “a posh newspaper was branded racist yesterday – for suggesting Scotland should ‘go and f*** itself’” (1 February). The Sun might be seen as trivializing the term; but this seems to be part of a more complex discursive strategy whereby: (1) the newspaper denigrates racists by using emotive and derisory terminology and therefore treats racists as desubjectified objects of hatred (thus adopting a discursive strategy which mirrors that of racism itself); and (2) the newspaper and its readers explicitly criticize those (thrall to the cowardice of politically correctness) who denigrate those opposed to immigration as racist – even while it repeatedly reminds its readers that such senior Conservatives as David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke have accused UKIP of harbouring racists, in an oddly ambivalent strategy which at once challenges and reinforces the idea that UKIP is a racist party. The paper thereby paradoxically performs a process of branding and a simultaneous resistance to such branding.
Fowler (1991, p. 111) has observed how such terms of abuse as scum and louts and thugs have become “common in the popular press” and are “consistently focused on certain classes of person, notably soccer hooligans, vandals, blacks […] ‘the loony Left’ […] and foreigners.” In addition to its focus upon footballers and foreigners, during 2013 The Sun used the term yob in relation to racist incidents on 34 occasions and the word thug on 50 occasions. On 27 January the paper featured an interview with a student complaining of racism in her native Glasgow which offered an illuminating example of the denigration of the racist as less-than-human: “I heard a ned being racist to a taxi driver.” A ned – which may be glossed as a non-educated delinquent – is a derisory term for a member of a socioeconomic underclass. This dehumanization of racists represents a strategy which bears structural similarities to racism itself, one which journalism’s practitioners and educators might both do well to avoid. There is something deceptively righteous in this mode of discrimination, insofar as “dehumanization allows us to re-cast cruelty and violence as something else” (Steuter and Wills 2009, p. 40).
Sun columnist Rod Liddle sparked controversy in December 2009 when (in his blog for The Spectator) he described as “human filth” two black teenagers jailed for conspiracy to murder. Liddle was later censured by the Press Complaints Commission for these comments. As The Guardian noted on 10 March 2010, this was the first time that the PCC had “upheld a complaint against a newspaper or magazine over the content of a blog by a journalist.” Liddle’s writings in The Sun are no less inflammatory. Millwall fan Liddle has denounced the notion that his team’s supporters are “a bunch of bigoted, racist, babymunching psychos” (24 January 2013) but has also supposed that “football clubs cannot guarantee that each one of their supporters is a true anti-racist, has memorised every one of Martin Luther King’s speeches and has a collection of Lenny Henry DVDs at home” (14 February). He has repeatedly condemned a political correctness which brands as racist anyone who opposes immigration (2 May), complaining on 7 March of the politically correct’s “massed bleat of: ‘RRRRAAAAAAAAAACCCCIST.’”
The Sun’s most common response to racism is to belittle it. This is sometimes to trivialize it, sometimes to denigrate those perceived as racist, and sometimes to diminish perceptions of its impact. Liddle wrote on 7 March 2013 of “an Asian lady who received vile, hate-filled, racist abuse.” The woman in question had responded that “hopefully it was just someone having a bad day and that’s the end of it.” Liddle concluded: “Now there’s dignity for you.” Liddle’s implication seems to be that any greater reaction to racism is an over-reaction.
On 27 May The Sun ran a pair of pieces ridiculing claims made in an academic book that the TV series Doctor Who was racist: “only an idiot could describe Doctor Who as ‘thunderingly racist’. Those who run around screaming ‘racist’ at any excuse do huge damage to the fight against real racism.” (These pieces were followed by a pair of similarly outraged letters from readers three days later.) The paper thus reinforced notions that such allegations of racism are spurious: indeed it has habitually rejected as “ludicrous” claims that television programmes are racist (van Dijk 1991, p. 103).
Van Dijk (1991, p.79) notes that British tabloids are more often troubled by anti-racist arguments than by racism itself. He has shown how The Sun has presented itself as a “defender of freedom of speech” against a tyranny of political correctness represented by “black racists” (1991, p. 101). The “barely veiled racism of the British […] tabloids” has crafted proponents of anti-racist positions as “the new enemy within” (van Dijk, 1988, pp. 184-185). The tabloids’ attempts to reverse this stigmatization (we aren’t racist, they are) fosters a “systematic denial of structural racism” which allows that “some people have prejudices, and some people discriminate, but racism can only be found in small rightwing groups outside of the broad consensus” (van Dijk 1988, p. 184). Thus the tabloid may conclude that “allegations of racism [against the paper and its protégés] are simply the exaggerations of radicals or a few hypersensitive minority group members” (van Dijk 1988, p. 184). It is thus that, as van Dijk (1995, p. 30) observes, the populist press is able to exclude from its discourse discussion of “everyday racism” – especially that of its own socio-political elites.
Wilson (1996, p. 60, pp. 252-253) notes that a growth in hostility towards political correctness has “helped racism” and has been “reflected in shows of exasperation in some of the right-wing British tabloids.” Those who trot out the cliché of ‘political correctness gone mad’ tend to believe that political correctness was less than rational in the first place. On 5 April The Sun had, for example, parodied anti-racist arguments when it had cited red-headed musician Mick Hucknall’s attempt to compare “people making fun of his hair to racism.” On 14 March it mocked an MP for “accusing the BBC of racism” – when he had misread a news tweet in relation to the election of Pope Francis which had asked “Will smoke be black or white?” (The MP had misread the BBC tweet as asking whether the new Pope would be black or white.)
On 23 November The Sun reported that a school had “sparked fury after warning eightyear-olds will be branded as racist if they do not attend a workshop on Islam.” This image of branding recurred four days later when a Sun reader repeated that “eight-year-olds would be branded racist if they didn’t attend a workshop on Islam.” On 21 May the paper reported the case of “a patriotic ex-squaddie” whose landlord had asked him to paint over a St George’s Cross he had daubed on his front door. The former serviceman stated: “I’m not a racist.” A similar example of rabid political correctness came on 30 August when the paper told the tale of another homely hero, a chip shop owner who had been “branded racist” for erecting a sign which announced his business had “English owners” and commenting that “people want to be served fish and chips by somebody English.” Four days later, one indignant letter-writer suggested that if the small businessman was to be considered racist for his belief that “people want to be served fish and chips by somebody English” then we should consider “Asian Bride magazine” and the “Black Police Association” racist too. On 10 October another outraged reader wrote similarly that the Society of Black Lawyers “is surely a racist label.” Ethnic minority identification was thus racist in itself; and calling someone racist was a racist act.
On 22 May the columnist Jane Moore suggested that the liberal belief that “poor little Muslims are so naive and downtrodden that they need savvy, powerful white people to speak up for them” was itself a “racist assumption”. On 24 March George Galloway MP was called racist for refusing to engage in debate with someone he himself viewed as a racist. Despite the paper’s own predilection for branding so many members of a perceived underclass as racist yobs, it supposed that those who brand others racist are themselves “a bunch of screaming numpty yobs” (20 May) or “imbecile[s]” (10 October). During 2013 the paper continued its crusade against politically correctness with reports of gypsies who had “moaned” about racism (5 November), a Sun journalist accused of racism while attempting to “catch a suspected terrorist” (11 November), a “bungling council” which took Eastern European children away from their UKIP-supporting foster parents on the grounds that “UKIP have racist policies” (21 May), and the University of Birmingham’s alleged declaration that “wearing a sombrero is now a racist act” (7 November).
On 26 November Romania’s Foreign Minister was said to have “branded” British MPs as racist. On 27 December a United Nations official’s criticism of the UK Immigration Bill was deemed a “tirade” (a word also applied to racist abuse) against “racist Britain”. On 26 and 30 December the paper suggested that Liberal Democrat concerns over immigration controls were tantamount to denouncing their advocates as “Enoch Powell-style racists” – who “like Enoch Powell, probably wear a pointy white hat and robes.”
The opposition to racism has become a discourse of branding, tirades and hyperbole. To brand is to de-humanize: to violate the other as an animal-object (it is the epitome of racism; it is the tactic of slavers and the functionaries of the Final Solution). Racism and anti-racism have become confused in absurd parodies of their own positions, taking such discourse to the point at which (as The Sun reported on 2 November) “a Nazi fanatic booted out of Asda for wearing a full SS uniform said […] ‘I’m disgusted – they’re a bunch of racists […] Asda are a bunch of racists.’” If prejudice can only be challenged by a discourse which reveals prejudice for what it is, then this blurring of terms to the point of absurdity excludes the possibility of rational resistance.
This then is the topsy-turvy environment in which UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom responded to a journalist who had accused UKIP of racism by calling that journalist racist himself. The Sun (8 August) described Bloom’s “crass outburst” as “a gift to those on the Left who delight in portraying anyone who opposes their open-door and open-wallet policies as racist.” The paper added that “it allows a serious debate about the wisdom of giving billions in aid to unstable nations to be smothered under a blanket of name-calling.” This is perhaps a strangely common argument for a publication which has itself pursued similar tactics: strategies of name-calling, stigmatization and ad hominem attacks which prevent the possibility of radical, rational dialogue.
The letters pages of The Sun give the impression that its readers are more extreme in their intolerance than the paper’s own editorial line, although “newspapers frequently use letters’ pages to include but rhetorically distance themselves from racist […] comment” (Richardson 2009, p. 374). During 2013 the paper’s letter-writers repeatedly expressed their distaste at having been “branded as racists” (28 November) or “classed as a racist” (10 April) for their views on immigration: “we were racists” (8 March); “we need more Brits employed, or is that racist?” (18 April); “it is not racist to expect people to show their face in public” (19 September). Other readers denounced the double-standards of their ideological opponents (thereby implying that political, social and economic capital was already ethnically symmetrical): “is he of the opinion that only white people can be racist?” (5 November); “why is it no one takes a stand against racist bullies unless they are white?” (27 February); “two men on a sponsored walk for charity are attacked in Birmingham for being white and non-Muslim and we don’t hear a peep from the equalityobsessed anti-racist chaps” (13 August); “if this was a British person being racist against Muslims, he would be arrested” (6 June). Such letter-writers echo the paper’s own editorial position in speaking out against the way in which the nation has been “ripped off for years by foreigners” and in laying the blame at the doors of those who “are too afraid of being called racist to speak the truth” (19 February). On 28 November one reader argued that the word racist was “grossly overused” and iterated the quasi-Voltairean dictum that one might “disagree with what you say but […] fight to the death for your right to say it.” On 10 September another reader argued that “it’s all too easy to use the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ to bully others into keeping quiet.” This could be considered both the paper’s editorial line and its editorial strategy: (1) it is wrong to use such dehumanizing branding to silence one’s ideological opponents; (2) it is, however, highly effective to do so (which is why we do it).
The Sun argues that the former government “used to smear as racist anyone daring to question their disastrous open-door policy on immigration” (4 July), that people “are frightened to be thought of as […] appearing to be racist” (23 November) and that “terrified of sounding like racists, we have been too timid to say British beliefs are as deeply held as anybody else’s beliefs” (22 September). At the same time, however, it accuses its ‘others’ (foreigners and the societally dispossessed) of racist thuggery, and deploys an ideological assurance born of its refutation of political correctness to legitimize extreme positions by pre-empting accusations of extremism. This phenomenon is witnessed in the following columns from 30 January, 16 February and 18 February:
Migrants […] can create their own ghetto […] untroubled by a neutered police force running scared from being branded ‘institutionally racist’.
A London council has [made] spitting and urinating in the street illegal […] How long before someone brands this ‘racist’? In various Middle Eastern countries, shoppers produce an even greater number of docker’s oysters than Wayne Rooney. And in France, urinating in the street is almost a sport.
Bulgarian and Romanian migrants […] are seen, at best, as skivers. Before anyone shouts ‘racist’, look at some facts. Romania and Bulgaria are so corrupt they were barred from EU membership after reports from Europol showed they are virtually mafia states. [Note: Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in January 2007.]
The discourse of The Sun suggests that racists comprise a category of yobs and other subhuman scum as well as foreigners and such other risible stereotypes as football fans and football managers. It argues that those who brand more normative perspectives as racist are themselves racists attempting to silence open debate. The producers and consumers of The Sun’s discourse cannot therefore be accused of racism: the rationality of their position thus assured, such assertions as those above could hardly be considered racist – indeed could hardly be considered anything other than natural truths. Yet to expose this discursive strategy does not mean that we should automatically disregard the validity of its discourse.
The knee-jerk denigration of racists may itself promote the very suppressions of dialogue, knowledge and reason upon which racism itself thrives. This is a problem for liberal academia as much as for The Sun. The anti-racist agenda shared by a range of journalists and journalism educators might easily transform into an ‘anti-racists’ perspective which singles out bigots as a dehumanized underclass, rather than one which attempts to engage and challenge those who hold such opinions in rational and informed dialogues. This shift might undermine the potential for journalism and journalism education to promote socially progressive discourses; it might also undermine anti-racist arguments by providing ammunition for those entrenched interests which have sought for decades to demonstrate the risible irrelevance of the politically correct. This is something that journalism education might learn from The Sun.
There is no simple strategy in response to this situation. The most effective position for journalism education would be to recognize, illuminate and scrutinize the moral complexities of this situation: to acknowledge that the problem is a matter of endemic and often unconscious prejudice rather than a case of a few bad apples, of a despised minority of racist individuals (gang members, footballers, politicians or journalists) whose presence in our society we might seek to purge; to realize that we are all (including liberal academics) part of the problem and are all (including tabloid journalists) part of any possible solution.
DeMott and Adams (1984, pp. 50-51) have argued that there is nothing more useful for a “student of journalism than a sound understanding of racism” and announced the need for a “massive effort” to promote journalistic “education concerning racism.” Charles (2013, p. 48) has pointed out that it is important not only that journalism students engage in complex ethical debates, but also that, in doing so, they are able to “contribute to a potential formulation of alternative journalistic practice.” The contentious and complex nature of such issues is precisely why they should be brought into the classroom: not only because they are clearly important in themselves, but also because they provide opportunities to challenge the assumptions of journalistic practice and of journalism education. Such challenges not only offer students the possibility of active participation in the development of alternative practices and perspectives; they also allow students to rehearse and hone their professional skills as journalists – to challenge entrenched power: the entrenched assumptions not only of their industry and society but also of their educators themselves.
Jacobs (2003, p. 140) argues that “because communication takes place within an environment of plural and partial publics, it cannot be considered solely in terms of its ability to produce a shared commitment to a singular vision of the good, or to some ‘rational’ consensus; it must also be evaluated in terms of its ability to keep a conversation going, and to protect the possibility of opening up this dialogue to new narratives and to new points of difference.” Those working in journalism education might usefully eschew the strategies of those (such as The Sun) which would dismiss radically oppositional perspectives as the province of irrational extremists and socio-political pariahs, but may instead endeavour to include all positions (including those of The Sun) in such dialogues in order to allow them progress. This is not about the synthesis of a liberal consensus; it is not about the triumph of a political correctness which excludes all other possible positions; on the contrary, it is about maintaining an openness to a multiplicity of perspectives, one which actively seeks to engage all perspectives (including those most alien and most ‘offensive’) in meaningful and unbiased dialogue. The Sun may employ the exclusionary tactics of racism against those it dubs racists (including foreigners and the political correct); but if journalism educators are to engage constructively with these arguments then they should avoid such visceral responses.
Alemán (2014, p. 72) argues that “the teaching of various newsgathering routines and values” may be determined by racially hegemonic perspectives – so that “distorted” representations of racism may themselves result in a misunderstanding of “systemic racism” and thus “uphold white supremacy.” She argues that it is only by challenging the presumed normativity of such dominant paradigms that progressive dialogues may emerge. A mode of media literacy critically conscious of the problematic nuances, complexities and ambiguities of populist representations of race and racism might therefore not only benefit the development of journalists as enquiring, reflective practitioners, but also, as Yosso (2002, p. 60) argues, offer broader cross-disciplinary opportunities “to utilize media as a pedagogical tool in the struggle to raise social consciousness and work toward social justice.”
Journalism education should not then denounce racism or racist coverage as the province of an ideologically untouchable other. It should not suggest that those who oppose its own positions are themselves racist or otherwise morally monstrous; it should not assume its own ethical supremacy; it should not suggest that racism is somebody else’s problem, and that those who advocate politically offensive positions are themselves unworthy of engagement in rational dialogue. What journalism education might learn from The Sun is that it is unproductive to follow that publication’s own discursive strategies – especially in engagements with those strategies. We need, in short, to stop ridiculing and reviling The Sun but to start engaging with it not on its own terms but in a language we can all understand.
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